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“Competitive Intelligence is a Mindset”

Student Shadow, Sarah Bratt, reflects on UNYSLA’s spring conference.

Janis Whritenor, Paychex, Inc.

At this year’s 2014 UNYSLA /SCIP conference, Janis Writenor proposed a fascinating paradigm shift in the way we think about the context of our business. There’s widespread agreement in the corporate world that the best approach to a business task requires a wealth of vetted information. However, this claim is belied by the recent rash of “Big Data” hype. So what now for librarians? What now for competitive intelligence professionals?

In the chiefly data-driven, highly networked landscape where the concept of data-driven-decision-making isn’t new, there’s still a persistent need to develop tools and techniques to grapple with emerging business intelligence and market research challenges.

With over 20 years of strategic market research experience, Whritenor’s talk provided valuable insight into “why CI is critical for business today.”  Her career began in printing and evolved once she completed her MBA. Whritenor then created her own position at Paychex, Inc. dealing chiefly in payroll and business support. Feet wet, her interest in competitive intelligence and business intelligence grew and she began managing teams to fulfill requirements for market research at Paychex. Her business savvy led to “transform[ing] data into insight.” But the nitty gritty of market research is a mystery without a concrete example of a success story at Paychex.  To answer “What makes for successful CI?” Whritenor spoke from her experience as a manager at Paychex, Inc. in the company’s move to open an office in an emerging market.

Paychex in Brazil: A Case Study

Whitenor focused on a case study she worked on at Paychex where she used a CI mindset in a project. Paychex was doing a global scan assessing new markets for expansion. Explosions of questions arose in the new venture: Which country do we choose? What’s the business climate like? Is the market large enough? Is the government pro-business? Anti-business? And once you’ve asked these questions, how in the world do you find out the answers? To narrow down the questions, Whritenor advised finding “the long pole in the tent.” Paychex’s decision to expand into a new country was ultimately dependent on the “long pole” of regulatory requirements and the burden these requirements placed on business.

In the end, Paychex weighed their options and ultimately decided to open a foreign operations office in Brazil. As one of the “BRIC” emerging markets (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), Brazil’s economic situation differed from Paychex’s previous endeavors. The move last fall 2013 proved successful owing in part to the background research performed by Whritenor and colleagues. Market research paints a predictive picture for a company looking out at a 5-10 year horizon. Whritenor also suggested concept-testing, asking other companies about their “pain points,” and hiring a local company to do what their business isn’t expert at (e.g. payroll). Whritenor argued that the success of the decision required CI continuity.  Generalizing her experience with Paychex’s changing priorities, she concluded the case study by asserting that CI must be seen as a lifecycle, which iterates as the dynamics of systems, economies, and priorities change.

CI as a Mindset

Data-driven decision making is not a new idea. But as a mindset, CI requires that you think bigger and that you think global. Every library, every small business, every mom-and pop road-side stand sits enmeshed in a global context. CI as a mindset means you and your business are nested in a network of linked entities that compete and collaborate. Total isolation from modern marketplaces is extremely rare (I’ll grant you the South Pole and deep space as economically out of reach places, as far as global economics goes). The norm for managers of a business or organization of any size, market, niche, or location is deeply embedded in markets.

The implications of Whritenor’s statement that “CI is a mindset” are impactful across organizations and industries. As the centers of information collection, organization, and access (and the details that come with information management), libraries are central to an organization’s competitive intelligence conception. Librarians conduct research not only by amassing credible sources, but also synthesize and analyze findings and build a foundation for managers to make decisions with the rich view of the SWOT landscape. Granted, libraries and corporate environments differ. For example, the lifecycle of CI is not as static. There’s a higher premium on currency of information in fast-paced, bottom-line driven business than you’ll usually find in traditional academic research in the social or natural sciences.

Libraries and CI

Where there’s a question of website authority, document authenticity, or information currency, so too are there librarians (or should be!). An information professional is well-poised to assist the research process no matter the library or community he serves.  Whritenor’s Paychex example underscored the central role of source evaluation in CI. Her experience was a case study in the importance of navigating vast collection of data to support solution-building, especially by understanding known and unknown sensitivities of the new business climate (e.g., a country’s time zone, policy-making process, and cultural norms). These sensitivities influenced the ultimate decision to open an office in Brazil.

In the end, we can agree with Whritenor: CI is best thought of as a mindset rather than a particular lineup of tools and strategies. And a public or academic library would do well to leverage this mindset. Traditional libraries are well-adapted for CI not to vie against competition, but in the context of goals different from corporate community engagement and information evaluation, and research needs but rather to take the temperature of the business and educational landscape.

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